Detailed record of Great War

2008-10-02 08:05

ALTHOUGH there have been many books written about the causes and course of World War 1, the East African Campaign has, for the most part, been largely overlooked and to this day remains very much “the forgotten war”. It is a picture which Tip and Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa, author Edward Paice's remarkably well documented and organised study, seeks to redress.

Often viewed as a mere sideshow to the main war in Europe, the East African conflict was, in its own way, every bit as bloody and as powerful as the battle on the Western front with disease and the unforgiving climate also exacting a heavy toll. The cost in both human and monetary terms was enormous especially among the long-suffering local tribes people, many of whom were shanghai'd into serving as carriers in a war not of their own choosing.

By the end of the war over one million had been recruited by the British and their colonies and in German East Africa, of whom no fewer than 95 000 died - almost double the number of Australians or Canadians or Indians who gave their lives in the Great War. A severe drought in 1917 and 1918 also added to the region's woes and - as if this was not enough - the outbreak of Spanish flu further decimated the population (by the time the epidemic was over between 1,5 million and two million people had died in sub-Saharan Africa).

In the initial stages of the war, at least, the British preparations seem to have been remarkably lackadaisical with Sir Henry Conway Belfield, the Governor of British East Africa, completely underestimating the resolve and determination of his German counterparts. Although they enjoyed a substantial numerical advantage the British completely bungled their opening gambit of the war - a sea assault on the coastal town of Tanga - and instead of taking the port as anticipated, suffered a humiliating defeat and were sent scuttling back to their ships.

The British continued to make heavy weather of it, the turning point only coming with the arrival of a large contingent of South African troops under the overall command of General Jan Smuts - although his confident predictions of a quick, decisive victory were also to prove woefully off the mark (“Smuts's War” as it came to be known was to prove immensely unpopular in South Africa even if it did make him a hero in Britain).

Indeed the German forces, under the command of the resourceful and enterprising General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, appeared to have learnt more from Britain's previous military campaigns in Africa than the British themselves. Not only did he employ the classic Zulu horns-of-the-bull formation in some of his confrontations with the enemy but when the tide did eventually turn against him he resorted to the highly effective hit-and-run guerilla tactic the Boers had perfected in their war with Britain.

Determined to never surrender, he led Smuts' forces on a merry chase across the length and breadth of East Africa, stretching their supply lines to breaking point. He even headed deep into Portuguese East Africa where his tough-as-teak Askari made short shrift of the shambolic Portuguese army, supposedly there to defend the territory. He was still in the field, marching towards Northern Rhodesia, with the exhausted British and Southern African forces in dogged pursuit, when the armistice was declared.

Paice's major achievement is to bring these and countless other episodes from this neglected chapter of history vividly to life, in the process shedding light upon a period that remains, in general, unfamiliar to the public at large - and doing it with considerable panache and style. Undoubtedly the most authoritive, comprehensive and detailed record of the Great War in Africa to date, it is a most valuable addition to the histography of the continent and makes for absorbing reading for both lay person and academic alike.

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